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The Long, Defiant History of Activism Among Black Athletes

Journalist Howard Bryant's new book looks at how black athletes have historically ignored the mandate to "shut up and play."
Paul Robeson listens to a speech during the Peace Partisans World Congress in Moscow on April 20th, 1949. Robeson lost his passport in 1950.

Paul Robeson listens to a speech during the Peace Partisans World Congress in Moscow on April 20th, 1949. Robeson lost his passport in 1950.

"It was spectacular," the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James said to a reporter in 2014. "I loved it. I'm looking for one." What could the hoops legend and multimillionaire possibly have wanted that he didn't already own? Simple: a black T-shirt. Specifically, a black T-shirt with the phrase "I can't breathe" printed across the front. James had earlier seen Derrick Rose, then of the Chicago Bulls, wearing that shirt. In recent years, its message has become a rallying cry against police violence: In July of 2014, Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, died on Staten Island, New York, after police officers wrestled him into a deadly chokehold. According to a cell phone video, Garner's last words, which he repeated nearly a dozen times, were: "I can't breathe."

After some scrambling—and with an assist from Jay-Z—James secured the shirt in a day, just in time to wear it during warm-ups before a game against the Brooklyn Nets. Members of the British royal family also were in attendance that night. Through his hardwood attire, James was looking to issue his own salvo, to join a wave of national protest against the police brutality that has long plagued black American communities, but that too seldom earns more than a slap on the wrist, if that.

There's a term for someone like James, and increasingly it feels incendiary: athlete-activist. Why does the term feel incendiary? Because the political actions of the athlete-activist, especially if that person is black, tend to discomfit white viewers used to complacency. This kind of overt politics challenges the notion that an athlete's only job is to shut up and play.

With his world-historical fame, "King James" is a highly visible avatar of the athlete-activist, but he's also the latest entry in a much broader history. It's this lineage that the journalist Howard Bryant explores in his new book, The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism. In particular, Bryant looks at how black athletes have found themselves in a political bind since World War II: Embrace politics, or keep it at arm's length in the interest of self-preservation.

Bryant traces the birth of this modern black political-athletic heritage, a concept he simply calls "the Heritage," to Paul Robeson. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1949, the former NFL star and bass-baritone singer delivered a seminal condemnation of American racism, while noting the Soviet Union's more enlightened official stance on integration: "Why should the Negroes ever fight against the only nations of the world where racial discrimination is prohibited, and where the people can live freely?" Robeson asked. "Never! I can assure you, they will never fight against either the Soviet Union or the peoples' democracies." Reeling, McCarthy-era America deployed the celestial baseball player Jackie Robinson to dismiss Robeson, a.k.a. the "Bad Negro," as Bryant frames it. In his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Robinson said that Robeson's statement "sounds very silly." He added: "I've got too much invested for my wife and child and myself in the future of this country ... to throw it away because of a siren song sung in bass." This blistering repudiation helped contribute to Robeson's ruin: financial hardship, the loss of his passport, and harassment by the government.

The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.

The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.

But Robinson was arguably playing a longer game. As Bryant points out, within Robinson's testimony before HUAC "were the seeds of ... the radical Robinson who never backed down," who criticized the hypocrisy of a mealy mouthed America that wanted to denounce the illiberalism of communist countries while failing to address its own racist regime. "Negroes were stirred up long before there was a Communist Party, and they'll stay stirred up long after the party has disappeared—unless Jim Crow has disappeared by then as well," Robinson told HUAC.

For some 20-plus years, the Heritage thrived, sustained by figures like Cassius Clay and Lew Alcindor, both of whom later converted to Islam and officially change their names—to Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, respectively. Nodding to his pan-African beliefs, Ali remarked in a 1975 Playboy interview: "Sure, I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin' hell, but as long as they ain't free, I ain't free."

Then O.J. Simpson came along.

One of the sharpest, most interesting facets of Bryant's analysis is his interrogation of "greenwashing," which is Bryant's term for the decision by some black athletes to seek power through cash, rather than through political action: "Instead of athletes using their celebrity to advocate for black people, as the old guard had, elite black players now opted for big salaries to sell sports and products, to help white America believe that all the messy history—and the nagging realities of the present—was gone."

To an extent, it became increasingly tempting to take this approach to athleticism: With the rise of endorsement deals, the allure of securing wealth essentially helped foreclose meaningful political action. Moreover, the sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards tells Bryant that "the seminal issue from about 1975 to 2010 ... was the absence of a defining ideology and movement that would frame and inform activist positions." Likewise, Simpson focused not on advocacy but on ads—endorsing everything from orange juice (naturally) to Hertz rent-a-cars. As he once (in)famously said: "I'm not black. I'm O.J." But it wasn't just Simpson; throughout the rest of the 20th century, athletic phenoms such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, too, were skittish around politics. Bryant argues that greenwashing effectively killed the Heritage, or at least put it on life support.

To understand what fueled the re-emergence of the black athlete-activist of today, Bryant argues, it's necessary to look at the profound effects that 9/11 had on American culture. In the aftermath of the attacks, which claimed the lives of more than 400 emergency workers in addition to nearly 3,000 civilians, "the police-as-hero narrative appeared, stuck, remained, persisted, and spread," he writes. Within years, this largely uncritical embrace of law enforcement ran up against the growing visibility of police brutality, exemplified by the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland, among others. Bryant argues that the "runaway 9/11 narrative of police pageantry did not square with the daily experience of how law enforcement dealt with black people." Today, this tension is perhaps most noticeable in the struggle of Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Since 2016, Kaepernick's decision to sit and later kneel during the national anthem, as a form of silent protest against racial injustice, has become a lightning rod for the fury of the American right.

Yet the real value of The Heritage lies in Bryant's awareness of just how long this has all been going on. At a time when it's easy to lose sight of the historical context of the black athlete-activist, who today is often wealthy beyond imagination, Bryant keeps his eye on the ball. His investigation helps readers see the arc from mid-century politics to, say, Serena Williams, whose prodigious tennis career hasn't shielded her from feeling compelled to take political actions mirroring those of her forerunners, such as speaking publicly against police violence. On top of that, Bryant writes with the kind of vim, in turns darkly comic and serious, that pulls you from page to page. It's a bracing analysis that brings clarity during a hazy season of "kneeling and blacklisting, of patriotism and heroes, some real, many more contrived."